19 April 2014

Case Closed: the Appeal of Crime Fiction

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The talented Jenny Milchman is my guest on SleuthSayers while I'm off in Europe celebrating a big round birthday. See you in two weeks! Liz Zelvin

Jenny Milchman's debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an IndieNext and Target Pick and has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, is coming out on April 22nd, and she will hit the road with her family on the second of her multi-month book tours.

I was on the Vermont leg of my 7 month/35,000 mile book tour…Wait. Did I hook you with that mention of my uber long book tour? That’s actually a story for another post. But since we’re mostly crime writers here—some crime fighters, too—I figured the hook might be a concept worth demonstrating. I hope I was successful.

Anyway, at this terrific bookstore in Vermont, an audience member raised his hand and asked me if I ever scared myself while writing.

I tend to tell stories about other writers at book events. After all, if you do two hundred of them, you’d get pretty sick of just droning on about yourself. So when this man asked his question, I was reminded of what Stephen King said about Pet Semetary. Apparently when the master finished this novel, he had to put it in a drawer for a year because he had frightened himself so badly.

I can understand that. Pet Semetary provided some of my biggest scares to date, too. (And not, by the way, because of how creepy that cat on the cover was. What I think is truly terrifying about this book is its exploration of mortality. How far any of us would go to avoid it).

At the book event, I told the Stephen King story, but then I said that I have a very different experience while writing. And I think that the experience I have goes a long way toward explaining why crime fiction is such a popular genre.

I told the man at the bookstore that when I am writing a new novel, I am actually less scared than I am during non-writing times. That was a novel enough—pardon the pun—response that I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to be anything like satisfying.

This is what I came up with.

I think that I live with a lot of fear. On a regular, day-to-day basis, I would call myself a scared person. If I am standing on a subway platform, it won’t be the billboards, or the sickening smells of refuse and bodily secretions, or even that super cool subway poetry project that jumps out at me.

Instead it will be the swath of bright yellow paint above the tracks, and the blisters of concrete embedded in the paint in case someone is blind—or maybe just color blind—and requires texture to prevent his going over the platform and falling onto the third rail and dying.

Those are the kinds of thoughts that go through my mind when I am about to take a train. Except in my mind it won’t be an accidental tumble onto the tracks, because there will be something else on that platform. Someone else. A bad guy, in the vernacular of crime fiction.

If it’s not a subway platform, it’s a darkened movie theater. Or a play date.

I’m not kidding. The most benign experience can generate fear in my mind. The other day one of my kids got invited on a play date and the mom called and said, “I know we’ve never met, but if you are comfortable with it, we’d love to have your daughter come home with mine on the bus.”

Of course I have to be comfortable with it. What kind of crazy mom would say, “You may not realize it, but you just delivered exactly the kind of line a bad guy would say when he wants you to think that he isn’t a bad guy.”

Just about any experience can generate fear in my mind. Or…it can generate a novel.

I am less scared when I am writing a book, even though all sorts of malevolent things are going on, because there is a wonderful thing called an arc. The arc delivers a sense of satisfaction, of closure, so exhilarating that I breathe easier every day I am writing. Not because I’m all-powerful in the world of my novel—but because justice is. Things in crime fiction have a way of making sense, which real life too often doesn’t provide.

Mortality, remember, is the real reason Pet Semetary is so scary. I’d wager that it’s the real reason everything is so scary. And the reason crime fiction, as grisly as it can be, satisfies at a very core level. If people are going to get hurt and die, at least let us understand the reason.

Remember that monster who pushed the tourist family from Utah onto the tracks? We never really learned why he did it. But subway platforms have scared me ever since. Must be time to start a new novel.


  1. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Jenny, thanks for joining us! In Amsterdam, while they don't seem to push anyone off the tracks or even into the canals, pedestrians are in constant danger of being run over by hordes of bicycles!

  2. Welcome and very best of luck with your book tour!

    Tours are not for the faint hearted!

  3. Glad to hear from you on SleuthSayers, Jenny. Do you recall when Stephen King said that the way his mind works can be illustrated by how he feels when out fishing with a friend. When the friend's cork bobs, he expects to catch a fish. When King's bobs, he expects a monster to rise up from the water. Enjoy the tour.

  4. Jenny, welcome to SleuthSayers. Good luck with the new book!

  5. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Jenny. I still think the scariest story I ever read was "The Monkey's Paw", which is also on mortality and what people will do to keep their loved ones alive... Sort of... Until...

  6. Welcome to SleuthSayers! I remember Stephen King saying that when he wrote the first draft of The Shining the experience seemed normal but when he started the rewrite he found himself calculating with dread everyday how close he was to reaching a certain scene...

  7. Welcome, Jenny!

    I'm certain many of us turn to writing as a way of assessing and figuring out terror, or, as a man said about me, I am innocent when it comes to evil. Writing, like all art, offers an opportunity to figure it out… or not!

  8. Hi everyone! Liz, thank you for having me here. I hope you are having a terrific time on your travels. No monsters! Now...to respond to these wonderful comments.

  9. Janice, thanks for the luck! The tour is one of the single most fun things we've ever done. The response you have is one I hear most often, though. I think authors tend to find touring exhausting, and I wonder if the way we do it--while seeming to be super exhausting because it goes on for so long--is actually less so, because we're all together, not flying but just sort of exploring from one city to another?

  10. Fran, I don't remember him saying that...but boy, do I feel it! SK is scared by actual supernatural phenomenon. I find human monsters both the scariest, and the most...overcome-able? For me part of the joy of writing a suspense novel is the conquest at the end. I can't do an unhappy ending :)

  11. John, thanks for the welcome and the luck!

    Eve...Yes!! One of the scariest ever. Also, "The Most Dangerous Game" and "The Devil and Daniel Webster" for me. But you're right..."The Monkey's Paw" explores that exact desperate defiance of death.

  12. Robert, was that the bathtub scene? Interesting!

    Leigh, exactly. And so I wonder...what haven't I figured out? Can you know what you don't know?

    Great comments, everyone! Thanks for making me feel so welcome at SS.

    Now...off to (pre)launch a book tomorrow night!

  13. At Malice Domestic last year, Jenny was convinced there was a gas leak in the convention hall. Her story-telling ability is so spot on she had me smelling gas myself, and it wasn't long before writers and mystery fans alike were scrambling for the exits.

    Okay, I exaggerate a little bit. Mostly it was just ME scrambling for the exits. I never found out if there was an actual gas leak, but I credit Jenny for saving my life nonetheless.

  14. John...I'm smelling gas as we speak. Type.

    That's so funny. It was Bouchercon actually--my first--and evidence of how comfortable I feel with all you mystery folk that I revealed my terror. Ever since kindergarten, when I was convinced I was trapped by the sliding door, I have hid my crazy, in the words of Miranda Lambert.

    But now you all know I'm nuts.

    At least John is still with us.

  15. Was it Bouchercon? I have the absolute worst memory on the planet so I'll take your word for it...

  16. Great post, Jenny. Nice to have you here!



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